Luck & the Presidency

Was sayin’ to a dear friend tonight, well, Obama could be a good President.  Depending on what happens.  He may have an economic crisis on his hands in the first term of his Presidency that rivals the Great Depression faced by FDR.  In all likelihood, FDR was no more liberal a politician than Obama when he started out.  But faced with that crisis (and later, WW II), and given social pressures as well, Franklin rose to the occasion.  So hell, who knows, maybe Obama will get the same kind of “opportunity” and maybe he’ll be up to it.  We won’t know that for awhile.

What we do know is that the war Obama has on his hands isn’t WW II.  It’s nothing that, sorry to say this, easy.  More like LBJ’s war.  Obama shows no signs at all that he’s going to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan nor stay out of Pakistan.  That should do him in.

Whaddya know, I spent the evening catching up on some blog reading and found someone who said all this much better than I.  Occasionally it gets lonely in my isolated tree house and I think I’ve lost my marbles.  Makes it nice, so nice, to be able to say – what Falstaff said

Can a crisis mold raw clay into something great? Would Lincoln have come to be regarded as our greatest president without the Civil War? Would Franklin Delano Roosevelt have been great without an eponymous Depression – or, even with it, without the Second World War?


Clearly, LBJ, who self-consciously sought greatness, believed that victory over some large challenge was part of the entrance exam. He wanted to be the second coming of his political idol, FDR, and did a fair job of tracing that picture on the domestic front – including his embrace of racial justice in a way that ran counter to everything for which his life had previously stood. But to be FDR II, he had to win a just war — and not over an abstraction (poverty), but over a physical enemy (the march of communism). And the war that history provided for him was neither just nor winnable. As a result, nobody will ever place Lyndon Johnson in the top rung of the American Pantheon.


And the same, in all likelihood, applies to our next president, Barack Obama, despite his central-casting role as the emblem of America’s journey toward healing of its original sin. I suppose it’s hypothetically possible that radical jihadism will present an opportunity for an actually winnable war on his watch – but I doubt it.


On the economy, though, perhaps an LBJ-level opportunity is in the cards – but probably taking a very different form. Not that Obama has evidenced much thoughtfulness or originality on the subject of economics – nor the kind of strength and toughness needed to drive something controversial to completion, as Johnson did with the Civil Rights Act. Obama simply isn’t a leader.


But perhaps, on both policy grounds and leadership grounds, not much will actually be needed? Perhaps this looming Depression II is so significant, and our self-consciousness of it is so vivid (in large part because we went through the first one), that there’s a politically meaningful consensus that something serious has to be done. And perhaps — and this is the big “perhaps” — a concomitant consensus will emerge about what that something must be.


He’s definitely got one thing going for him: The world will be pulling for him. His tabula rasa-dom, his ability to serve as a universal-recipient-cum-focus-object for people’s fantasies, will stand him in good stead during a universally perceived emergency – in a way it wouldn’t have in palmier times. Even a lot of us who resent this person benefiting from the misogyny and fraud he rode to the nomination want the next President of the United States to succeed. The crapper we’ve fallen into is too dire to wish for anything else. The soul-repair of the Democratic Party will just have to wait on this. The tsunami has deferred that dream, too.


So I’m now hoping Obama serves as the stone soup for the collective, wisdom-of-crowds birthing of a new era. I don’t think he has the capacity to imagine it or deliver it himself. I don’t believe he has greatness in him, just waiting to be catalyzed by this crisis. In fact, I think he’s got certain aspects of narcissistic personality disorder, and that that cripples him as a decision-maker and even, long-term, as an inspirer.

But he might be a Luck Child, dropped by fate into our midst at the moment we need one… the moment when we most require a catalyst (or pretext) for a very different kind of greatness to emerge in us and among us.


And as the saying goes, it’s often better to be lucky than good.

Hope springs eternal because we look for it, and good for us.

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